TURN EVERY PAGE: THE ADVENTURES OF ROBERT CARO AND ROBERT GOTTLIEB
Director: Lizzie Gottlieb
MPAA Rating: (for some language, brief war images and smoking)
Running Time: 1:52
Release Date: 12/30/22 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 29, 2022
Director Lizzie Gottlieb has an insider's advantage in Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb. One of the subjects of the filmmaker's biography, of course, is her own father, long-time editor and publisher Robert Gottlieb, who has worked on some of the most notable novels of the 20th century and with some of the most noteworthy writers of the era. Among them is Robert Caro, the journalist who has made it his life's work to study and document the lives of those with political power.
Gottlieb, the director, makes it clear that her primary goal with this documentary is to witness what she understands to be the spirited and contentious editing sessions between her father and Caro. The writer has spent more than 40 years researching and writing about the life and career of Lyndon B. Johnson.
He has completed four volumes of a massive biography, and Caro is currently working on the fifth and final—if only because the author, who's approaching 90, knows he won't have the time to do any more beyond that—book. For fans of the writer's work and for those curious in the writing process in general, such a behind-the-scenes, fly-on-the-wall account could be fascinating.
Anyway, both Caro and Gottlieb shoot down that idea almost as quickly as it's raised in this movie. That seems like a question a filmmaker might ask before starting the cameras, but nonetheless, this director is persistent and hopeful—likely because she has known one of these men for her entire life and has a pretty solid in with the other. In the meantime, Gottlieb goes about with a biographical exercise of her own.
It's fairly basic stuff, simplified even more because the movie wants to document the experiences of two different subjects. We get information about Caro and Gottlieb's respective childhoods and early careers. The two eventually connected through Caro's literary agent when the writer was shopping what would become The Power Broker, his epic about urban planner Robert Moses. Gottlieb has edited and/or published all five of Caro's biographical books, and obviously, he'll be helping with this sixth one whenever the author has finished pages for him.
Without the hook of those editing sessions to guide the story, Gottlieb, the father, falls into the backdrop—as, perhaps, a good editor should. Most of this becomes about Caro: his extensive process of researching a subject (By extensive, we're talking more than four decades on Johnson at this point), ensuring that the prose of a non-fiction work has the same descriptive and narrative quality of a work of fiction, and putting pen to paper or fingers to the typewriter or just contemplating paragraphs on walks throughout the course of a normal day.
Famous fans such as Bill Clinton (whose own books, except for the one he's writing at the point of being interviewed for the documentary, were edited by Gottlieb), Ethan Hawke, and Conan O'Brien discuss Caro's merits. Others, from people in the literary industry to activists, point out how detailed and empathetic Caro's perspective on his subjects and beyond—such as how their pursuits of power affect ordinary people—can be. These discussions and dissections of the style, form, and impact of Caro's writing are intriguing—tempting one to consider picking up the physically massive volumes of his work—but limited, of course, because the movie has other topics and entirely different person to cover.
The filmmaker follows Caro in his everyday life, clicking away at a typewriter at the desk of his home office and showing deep shelf where he keeps carbon copies of everything he has ever written, and on some research trips, as he reminisces about breakthroughs in his previous Johnson tomes and prepares to get some more written for the final one. Caro is dedicated, and one imagines this movie will be good publicity for the next book, for assuaging concerns about whether or not he's actually going to finish it, and as a little teaser about what might be covered within it.
Some of this does get into the nitty-gritty of matters, such as an amusing debate about the use and utility of the semicolon, but for the most part, we're just watching and hoping—much as the director must have been for the entirety of filming—that we'll get to see these two men together, doing the work that they've been talking about separately for the majority of the documentary. The good news is that the promise is eventually fulfilled in Turn Every Page: The Adventures of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb, but it's a conditional fulfillment, to say the least. The "big" moment definitely isn't worth the wait, but at least the material beforehand is a slightly informative distraction.
Copyright © 2022 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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